Belmont Club

Tolstoy and Watertight Bulkheads

The MIT Technology Review has a list of 10 technology “breakthroughs” for 2015.  Under each entry there is an estimate of availability. Supercharged photosynthesis for example, may take 10-15 years to begin the multiplication of the world’s food carrying capacity. “It can be a decade or more before even simple crop modifications reach farmers, let alone changes as complex as reëngineering how plants carry out photosynthesis. But once scientists solve the C4 puzzle in a plant such as rice, they hope, the method can be extended to dramatically increase production of many other crops, including wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, apples, and soybeans.”

It’s not easy. One answer to why innovation is hard was provided by Leo Tolstoy in the famous opening of his novel, Anna Karenina.  He wrote, “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. The correct answers to problems tend to be alike while there are a multitude of ways to get things wrong (i.e. “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”).

This maxim is sometimes called the Anna Karenina principle after the novel.   However Tolstoy was not the first to notice it.  Aristotle anticipated Tolstoy by many thousands of years when he observed that “it is possible to fail in many ways for evil belongs to the class of the unlimited … while to succeed is possible only in one way”.  For years it was commonly assumed there was a right and wrong way to do things.

Recently however, the great wealth of the West has dulled the edge of the Karenina Principle and made it possible for contemporary politicians to think that anything goes.  It is now possible to seriously argue that every culture, religion, and approach is just as good as any other.  In this world of the technological tour de force success has now become matter of intentions.  British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn can say with a straight face the reason some people are still poor is because we refuse to share. There is no issue of means; only a deficit of will. The only intellectual crime  left is to imagine that any family should be unhappy.

In the world of anything goes “virtue signalling” can be substituted for the needless art of competence.  That term, invented by British writer Libby Purves, describes an exhibition of moral superiority which wins the day.  Moral superiority is now all it takes to fix things.  Engineering — especially social engineering — has been radically simplified. Will it, and it is. In place of “true or false”, “correct or incorrect” the contemporary thinker can merely substitute the term “good or bad” or better yet “progressive or reactionary” to characterize any approach to a problem and make a judgment on that basis.

The two interesting things about relativistic world based on “virtue signalling” is that 1) there are an infinite number of solutions to any problem; 2) all these solutions  are equally valid.  This absurdity holds because answers in a progressive world are always compared to intentions.  It becomes equivalent to solving a dependent system of equations, like the intersection of a line and a line equal to itself.  High school algebra shows this yields an infinite solution set.  To the question: what is the right policy in the Middle East comes the certain answer: anything Obama does.

This is very convenient because anywhere along the line works.  The Socialist Health Association of Britain can confidently ration medicine on the grounds that “any intervention costing more than £13,000 per-QALY [Quality-adjusted life year] risks causing more harm than good”.  Simultaneously Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm can say that had the Soviet Union been successful it would have been worth 15-20 million deaths (listen at 13:30 to EH’s interview with Michael Ignatieff).

Neither of these assertions is in danger of falsification because they are all self-reconciling propositions. They can exist without contradiction in the progressive universe where virtue is the only variable of interest.

The astute reader will notice that relativism suffers from the problem of insufficient information.  It’s stuck in a kind of infinite loop. The arrival of real information collapses the cloud constructed by “virtue signalling”.  When Anna Karenina asks Derrida for his specific name the game is up: he can no longer be the non-Derrida. He is constrained. Progressive foreign policies founded on exquisite moral signalling are seen to fail catastrophically once they touch the earth.  The NHS waiting lines grow ever longer despite the £13,000 per-QALY and Hobsbawm’s dream shatters under the datum that the Soviet Union was an inefficient and cruel tyranny not worth 2 cents.

One would be tempted to let people live in their nonjudgmental paradise except for the serious consequences to policies crafted on that basis. One is the embrace of kitchen sink approachs which refuse to recognize that certain things matter.  In this way radical Islamism is permanently excluded from criticism. Everything is smeared out into a model with no significant factors.  Bernie Sanders in a recent speech a Liberty University solved the problem of poverty in America by simply invoking morality.

Do you think it’s moral that 20 percent of the children in this country, the wealthiest country in the history of the world are living in poverty? Do you think it is acceptable that 40 percent of African-American children are living in poverty? In my view, there is no justice, and morality suffers, when in our wealthy country, millions of children go to bed hungry. That is not morality. … I think when we talk about morality, what we are talking about is all of God’s children, the poor, the wretched, they have a right to go to a doctor when they are sick!

Sanders offers no reason for believing his specific proposals won’t actually bankrupt everybody, including those he wants to help.  But he does not need to.  All he must establish is his sincerity and good intentions.   That lead us to the second consequence of ideological policy.  Because it is founded on a tautology it has the tendency to expand any problem in order to solve it.

Problems are fixed by spreading them around. Chicago having banned guns to no effect, now insists guns must be banned everywhere to stop violence in the Windy City. The European Union thinks it can solve the Syrian refugee problem by forcing every country to take a quota.  Greece can be fixed by lending them every greater sums of money.  President Obama apparently believes he can solve his foreign policy problems by internationalizing them.  Bring Iran into Iraq, bring Russia, China, Britain, Iran, Turkey into Syria and all will be well.  It is as if the mere act of making things bigger creates the solution.

Yet it does not. Often it expands the problem rather than fixes it.  Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy notes that China and Russia have told a Europe seeking UN permission not to use force against migrant smugglers.

Europe’s diplomatic push to secure U.N. authorization to use force against suspected human smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea ran into resistance this week from China and Russia, which have raised concerns that the initiative could interfere with the freedom to maneuver on the high seas, according to Security Council diplomats.

The pushback from China and Russia comes as Europe is straining to demonstrate that it can control the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing violence and persecution in places like Iraq, Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia. Britain, which is leading the European efforts at the United Nations, has written a draft resolution that would grant European navies the authority to use military force to confront the smugglers under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.

Europe should have acted on its own authority, or failing that on the basis of the sovereignty of its member nations. But that would be too simple. They couldn’t help sending the moral signal of going to the UN if only to be refused by Russia and China.  So what? Nobody wants a simple solution, only one with the most moving parts.

The reason why the Western political elite cannot see the usefulness of national borders in solving the refugee problem is they have blinded themselves to the benefits of constraining the solution.  They want a fix  unconstrained by facts and bounded only by their vanity. Ironically instead of finding themselves in a space with some solutions they find themselves with none at all.

This newfangled mode of thinking runs counter to older belief.  Most Europeans, in common with sailors who have instinctively resorted to watertight bulkheads to limit flooding while the hull is fixed have started to build fences. Unpersuaded by their betters that fences do not matter, they are atavistically trying to slow down the problem so they can fix it in parts rather than passively awaiting for the great to reach a global grand bargain.

Returning to the MIT list of breakthrough technologies, there are two striking things about it.  One is that “virtue signalling” played no part in determining merit.  One particular development, megascale desalination,  is in fact being developed in Israel, that least moral of countries according to conventional thinking.  Yet it may ironically provide the single greatest hope for the future of the Middle East.

On a Mediterranean beach 10 miles south of Tel Aviv, Israel, a vast new industrial facility hums around the clock. It is the world’s largest modern seawater desalination plant, providing 20 percent of the water consumed by the country’s households. Built for the Israeli government by Israel Desalination Enterprises, or IDE Technologies, at a cost of around $500 million, it uses a conventional desalination technology called reverse osmosis (RO). Thanks to a series of engineering and materials advances, however, it produces clean water from the sea cheaply and at a scale never before achieved.

Worldwide, some 700 million people don’t have access to enough clean water. In 10 years the number is expected to explode to 1.8 billion. In many places, squeezing fresh water from the ocean might be the only viable way to increase the supply.

The second thing to note is that politicians played or no part in creating these breakthroughs.  Most of the good things in this world were created by people whose names we don’t even know.  They were created by “happy families” of ordinary working stiffs trying to pass the strait gate of truth and not by ambitious politicians each convinced in his megalomanic way that he already had the truth or worse, that it did not exist.

If the world wants to step back from the crisis engulfing it, it may have to do it in parts.  That means putting the politicians in their place and slowing them down so that the ordinary world can work its magic. At present the great are so blinded by the light of their own self-righteousness that it’s hard to see a thing.


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